The Kid Whisperer: How to use an effective alternative to immediate consequences

Scott Ervin, Tribune News Service on

Published in Lifestyles

Dear Kid Whisperer,

I know I need to have immediate consequences for negative behaviors in my third-grade classroom, but no matter how immediate those consequences are or how big they are, they seem to make things worse. Kids talk while they are supposed to be taking a test, for example. It started with one student; now it’s 15. I tried a point system and a card system for taking recess and calling home. What am I doing wrong?

Answer: Everything you have learned about kids needing immediate consequences is wrong. In fact, it is profoundly wrong, and it is perhaps the most false and stress-inducing belief a teacher can have. This false belief, that consequences must immediately follow a negative behavior, comes, as far as I can tell, mostly from research done on birds.

Since kids are not birds, this work has led us down the wrong path.

For people like me and you who work with human students, there is a better way.

One of the many, many problems with immediate consequences is that they systematically give attention to kids who may not care what kind of attention, positive or negative, they get. This reinforces the negative behavior you are trying to get rid of. If we show frustration, we also give control to students, further reinforcing the behavior. If we send kids to the principal, we give them avoidance.

When you do this, you give the kids using the most negative behaviors the Behavior Hat Trick.


Here’s what I do instead. I give kids using negative behaviors the least attention and control and no avoidance, while I give kids using the most positive behaviors the most attention and control.

Kid Whisperer: I noticed Kid #6 is silent. I noticed Kid #13 is working hard.

Kid #1 to Kid #9: Psssst! Pssssst!

Kid Whisperer: I noticed Kid #9 is silent. (Kid Whisperer looks at Kid #1 with a confused look, as if to say “You are awesome but, that behavior is not awesome. What’s up with that? I’m confused.”)

Kid #1 to Kid #10: Pssst! Psssssssst!


Kid #10 looks as if he is about to respond, but Kid Whisperer gets eye contact from him, and very quickly shakes his head as if to say “Dude, you know not to talk right now.” By walking away immediately, Kid Whisperer communicates “…and I know you won’t talk”.

Kid #1 to Kid #23: Psst?

Kid #23 ignores Kid #1 because he knows that in Kid Whisperer’s classroom, people who follow the rules get more attention than those who don’t.

Kid Whisperer: I noticed that Kid #23 is silent. (Kid Whisperer hovers next to Kid #1 and puts his hand on the back of the student’s chair.)

Kid #1 to Kid #5: Pss---

Kid Whisperer: (Whispering so that only Kid #1 can hear) Zoinks. This is unfortunate. I will help you do some learning later.

Kid Whisperer: I noticed Kid #3 is working hard. I noticed that Kid #2 is silent.

Kid #1 becomes silent because he has noticed, over the course of many, many days in school, that when Kid Whisperer says that he will help someone to learn, it will be inconvenient for the student, and if the negative behavior continues, it will be even more inconvenient.

Kid Whisperer: I noticed that Kid #1 is silent.

Later, during non-instructional time, Kid Whisperer will guide Kid #1 to either solve the problem that he caused, or practice the positive behavior (sitting quietly) that he is struggling with. If he refuses to solve the problem, or learn the positive behavior, that learning opportunity will be waiting for him during non-instructional time until he does what is required, or he graduates from high school, whichever happens first.


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